“Monsters are a reflection of our society…”
…There is a tremendous amount of suffering in the world right now. I don’t need to give you all of the reasons why. You’re living it. But if there’s one glass half full outlook to take for us horror fans, it’s that monster movies tend to thrive in times of great turmoil and fear. Dracula, Romero’s zombies, Michael Myers…they’re all the face of our collective fears during the time they were created, and with director Talal Selhami’s Achoura out of Morocco, we’re given a poignant monster movie of the times that forces viewers to face one of the greatest tragedies of all: the loss of innocence.
For some of us, it happens when we walk in on our parents in a rockin’ van that warns we shouldn’t come a knockin’. For others, it involves literally being devoured by a monster, but in the end, we all end up in the same place. We grow up way too fast. Just like every kid must in Achoura.
Written by Selhami, Jawad Lahlou and David Villemin, Achoura centers around the Moroccan day of Ashura, a celebration of youth, and the monstrous Djinn which has come to feed on children during the event. When four friends reconnect after one of them disappeared twenty-five years ago, they are forced to confront the horrific truth of their pasts and must once again face the demon that stole their childhood from them so long ago.
Achoura probably sounds a little like Stephen King’s IT, and the two aren’t so dissimilar. Ancient monster that swallows kidlets whole? Check. Kids who once faced said monster and must now reunite as adults to stop it again? Check. Decades long love interest between one of the boys and the only girl in the group? You’ve got yourself a cousin to IT (not that hairball from The Addams Family). Except Achoura is missing two key ingredients: Well-developed characters and terror.
It’s frustrating how badly Achoura flounders in creating genuine shocks, because the tonal atmosphere of the film is otherwise a near perfect execution of a twisted fantasy. The film opens on the past during the night of Ashura, where we find kids dressed in masks and letting loose by a fire. A young boy and girl then meet eyes and run off from the fire like the teens in Jaws, only they head into an ocean of a cornfield, and encounter a much different monster in a decrepit old mansion fearfully referred to as “The French House”. Accompanied by a beautifully dark yet whimsical score from Romain Paillot and filled with gothic imagery such as the cobweb-filled manor, Achoura sucks you into a fairy-tale like world with a sinister tension creeping just underneath. Every space in Achoura is met with detailed production design from Marc Thiebault that brings the scene to eerie life.
And then we meet our monster, aka Bougatate, and the disappointment begins. It isn’t just because Bougatate is a poorly animated—though well-designed—creature that is so artificial it struggles to have much presence, but that the creature and scares are presented with more of a whimper than a roar. Oddly enough, many of the moments where Bougatate is present feature little of Paillot’s score while the editing drags its claws considerably. We’re also shown the entire monster right away, breaking the “less is more” rule with a creature that might be best hidden in the shadows for a while. What should be Achoura’s scariest moments are often it’s most silly.
As for the characters, the film features its own “Loser’s Club” of four adults whom we meet after our introduction to Bougatate. Teacher Nadia (Sofia Manousha), detective Ali (Younes Bouab), artist Stephane (Ivan Gonzalez) and kidnapped as a child Samir (Omar Lotfi). All are troubled. All lead empty lives. And the actors bring their all in delivering heartfelt performances. Yet Achoura’s script is more a pile of children’s bones than a fully fleshed out adult. Though we’re tossed around between flashbacks and the present day, the characters all come off more as the shells of a particular trauma (leaning into clichés like the troubled artist) instead of full-blooded, complicated people, that it lessens the impact of what Achoura is trying to accomplish emotionally.
Achoura is much better as a dark fantasy than it is an intimate horror film. Selhami whisks us away from dark, grimy warehouses to radiant farmland and foreboding mansions straight out of a Universal ghost story. There is a sense of childish wonder that resonates all throughout. But even though Achoura may make a good bedtime story for the kiddies, this isn’t the first “kids” horror movie I’d recommend to curious parents. That’s because Achoura is like a Guillermo del Toro adaptation of a Stephen King story with a script by Eli Roth. The fantasy elements are grandiose and inspired, the theme of growing up in the face of evil is strong and the violence is minimal, but the inherent seediness of the plot around implications of pedophilia and Bougatate as a metaphor for that might be a little too much for kids still getting over the death of Bambi’s mom.
You will cringe and you will cringe often. In that, Achoura is painfully effective.
If you can look past a malnourished script that is still flush with interesting ideas and a creature that’s like the buzzkill every time it shows up telling bad jokes at the party, Achoura is a passionate, generally well-executed tale that deals with complicated issues through a child-like lens. It’s an ambitious film with a classic good vs evil approach that tries to swallow more than it can chew like Bougatate snacking on kids, but ultimately satisfies on the way down.
Achoura is now on digital from Dark Star Pictures.
By Matt Konopka